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My life in the military with bipolar disorder

“I had slipped through the cracks for six years after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder,” said Staff Sergeant Sam L., “before it came to the attention of military officials.”

Sam had originally been diagnosed with depression before deploying to Kuwait and was taking antidepressants. Upon his return to Colorado in 1991, he became manic and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by a contracted civilian doctor on post. Like many people diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he reflected on his past and realized he’d had symptoms for a long time.

He continued to be treated by civilian doctors over the next four years until he was transferred to Ft. Hood in Texas. There, he saw a military doctor who shocked him with the news that, because he had a mood disorder, he was going to have to go before the Army’s Medical Evaluation Board, which would determine whether he would (1) remain in the military, (2) be medically retired with full benefits or (3) be discharged from the military with only severance pay.

“It was hell,” said Sam. “I had served well for 16 years, and now my career was in someone else’s hands. No one involved thought I’d be able to stay in. My liaison had never seen a soldier be allowed to stay in after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.” After months of an arduous process that included endless tests and reports from doctors, Sam was amazed, he said, when he was told he was the first service person at Ft. Hood who had bipolar disorder who would be allowed to stay in the service.

“It might have been because I was an x-ray tech and would be working in treatment facilities,” he said. “I wouldn’t be allowed to handle weapons or go overseas.” Sam served for another three years before he retired with both retirement and disability benefits.

“Mental health is not talked about in the military,” said Sam. “When Eric Schoomaker, Army Surgeon General, spoke to military personnel at Ft. Hood, he said, ‘When a soldier comes back from overseas duty, a dentist looks in his mouth. We need to have doctors look into their heads.’ And it was true,” Sam said. “If you had a cavity, you could be seen in three days. If you were having a mental health disorder, it could take months.”

Sam’s mental health treatment was chaotic. After his diagnosis, he saw a dozen therapists. “After a few sessions, you’d just start to connect, then they’d be reassigned and you’d have to start all over with someone new. To get my meds refilled, I’d be forced to claim I felt I was a danger to myself or others, though that wasn’t the smartest thing for me to say.”

He said treatment options began to improve about the time he retired, as large numbers of civilian doctors were hired by the military to treat soldiers returning from Iraq. “I was able to see the same therapist for three years. She undoubtedly saved my life.”

The military says things are changing. Army Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Loree K. Sutton, the Defense Department’s top mental health expert, told a congressional panel in February that “The United States is in the middle of a “cultural transformation” in mental health treatment led by the Defense Department and the military services.”

The department’s core message to service members and their families, she said, is:

  • You are not alone;
  • Treatment works;
  • The earlier the intervention, the better; and
  • Reaching out is an act of courage and strength.

“‘Suck it up and drive on’ led us for years, but that is no longer adequate” as an attitude toward mental health problems,” Sutton said.

Update:
” I too was in the military, the Air Force, when diagnosed with bipolar disorder,” writes S.S. “I can identify with the knowledge of being diagnosed incorrectly for several years before being asked the right questions and giving the “right” answers. However, I was not as lucky as Staff Sergeant Sam. Very quickly after being diagnosed, my case was seen before the medical board and I was discharged (honorably) with severance pay.

This ruling was such a shock to me. Not only had I already served a loyal 10 years, but I intended to make the military a 20 year career. I couldn’t believe that I had done my job perfectly well before my diagnosis, yet as soon as I was “labeled” the government thought of me as no longer fit for active duty.

The other shocking thing is that I was told I had a potentially debilitating mental disorder, yet I was thrown out on my arse to fend for myself. I have spent the last 10 years in and out of therapy, on and off of drugs with little or no results. Why is having a mental disorder seen as such a smudge on an individual’s life?”

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